A few Sundays ago, I made my first jam. Orange marmalade to be precise, from untreated Sicilian blood oranges. It took me a few hours, and I had to wash the kitchen floor and myself afterwards because everything got a bit sticky, but I did it. That evening I was sitting on my couch just looking at those glorious five jam jars with their orange-red filling. Proud as if I’d laid an egg.
Since then, I’ve made my own apple sauce and taralli (sort of pretzels), and there’s a box of orange peel in my freezer waiting to be candied. I am a bit surprised myself by my recent domestic adventures. But there is a reason behind all this. What inspired me to the jam-making…well, actually, that’s the point. I was not inspired, I was pushed. By 10kg of beautiful Sicilian oranges sitting in my hallway. My colleague’s brother has an orchard somewhere at the south-eastern corner of Sicily, and she organised a delivery of oranges up to Piemonte, for a good price, but you had to take 10kg minimum. What are you going to do with so many oranges? Marmalade, that’s what. Because you don’t want a single one of them go to waste…
So between my stinginess (prudence, ahem), and the appeal of these plump fragrant beauties, I ended up one rainy Sunday afternoon peeling, juicing and chopping oranges. I didn’t quite know what I was doing, but from my 5 lessons of food technology last year, I figured that plenty of heat and sugar should do the trick. In fact, my jam stood its ground quite well in an independent test – we had a marmalade face-off at work…the entire office had taken home 10 kg of oranges each! My boss was a bit upset when I told him that I had just chucked ‘however much sugar I had in the cupboard’ into my spontaneous mix of juice, flesh and peel and boiled it ‘until it seemed ok’. Apparently, he spent some hours painstakingly removing every last bit of pith and skin from the orange flesh, and measuring sugar to the exact gram count. His marmalade was lovely though, smooth and subtle. Mine is more like a chunky Marsala-laced fruit explosion.
I also realized something – making jam or preserves did not start because people had nothing to do on a Sunday afternoon. It began as a race against nature. As a way to preserve (!) food from spoiling. And also as a way to balance the abundance of one season with the scarcity of another.
Food preservation is in fact a way of household management, or home economics. The economics of the home used to be structured very differently then what we know. If you are not producing any of your own food, than your home is governed by an economics of demand: you purchase what you need and want, in the quantities that you need or want. I am not implying any extravagant or wasteful behaviour, but what we usually have to ‘manage’ in terms of food preservation is the short-term storage of perishable ingredients and leftovers. Which we put in the fridge. Or possibly the freezer. Done. The responsibility of managing large amounts of perishable goods is left to the trader (or processor, if they aren’t just raw ingredients). More than that, it is their responsibility to keep up supplies – we expect our traders to offer a steady supply of food under regular circumstances.
Making jam, preserves, ham, sausages, cheese…all these are born out of an economic system based on supply. You have an abundance of easily perishable food at one point in time, and you have to figure out a way to use it, or process it for later use. Anyone with an apple tree in the garden will know what I am talking about. In a time before refrigeration, the available methods for preservation were salting, smoking, fermenting, pickling and preserving with sugar or alcohol, plus maybe the odd minor other one (the Incas knew how to freeze-dry potatoes!). These all generally take a bit more skill than just opening the fridge door…you are outwitting nature, for a short while anyway. Snatching a short victory from the implacable advances of decay. A glorious moment indeed, for me and my five jars of jam.
(memories of Italy… originally written in February 2010, Bra, Piedmont, Italy)